From whence does my love for the Yiddish song stem? It is older than my love for music. It is like a treasure in which you find the strings of a timeless violin. The Yiddish song is the celebration of the Yiddish language – and its obstinate determination to vanquish despair and resignation. Elie Wiesel
I had an amazing experience singing in Poland this past summer. Arriving in time for Shabbat morning services at Beit Warszawa, I was warmly welcomed by Dominika and introduced to the congregation. It was wonderful to see everyone participating and singing during services with Avigail, the cantorial soloist.
After rehearsing with Menachem Mirski, who would serve as the leader of my klezmer band, I took the train to Krakow for the 27th Jewish Culture Festival. I was honored and excited to be asked by David Tilles to lead two Yiddish music workshops at the Galicia Jewish Museum. In my first workshop, entitled Yiddish Songs of Immigrant Life in America & Second Avenue Theatre. I taught songs by the labor poets Morris Rosenfeld, David Edelshtat and Avraham Reisen, as well as songs of women struggling against exploitation and oppression, which reflect the story of immigrant life in America. The Yiddish theatre on Second Avenue in New York City brought to life immigrants’ dreams and difficulties in the new world, and the nostalgia for the old country.
My second workshop was called Yiddish Favorites for Community Singing, in which I taught some of the most popular Yiddish folk songs including Oyfn Pripechik, Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen, Ale Brider, Der Rebe Elimelekh, Oyfn Veg Shteyt a Boym, Belz, Tumbalalaika, Di Sapozhkelekh and Zog Nit Keynmol. All songsheets were transliterated into Polish by Barry Smerin, who is fluent in Yiddish, Polish, French, English and a few more languages. Barry lives in Krakow and served as my translator for the workshops, which was especially helpful since many people didn’t speak English and were probably not Jewish. Both my workshops and the concert on Friday evening were organized by Beit Polska and The Association of Progressive Jews of Krakow.
Our first concert of Yiddish Songs of Love had a great turnout of 163 people. Menachem Mirski and his Klezmer band, which included accordion, violin, guitar, drums and bass, were wonderful. Although the audience didn’t understand Yiddish, they were very engaged and it was a joy to sing for them. It was truly heartwarming to see everyone, both Jews and non-Jews, enjoying Yiddish music and to see the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland. I was also surprised to find out that Yiddish is being taught at some universities. Krakow is an amazing place filled with charm and character and I was honored to be a part of the Jewish Culture Festival.
After 2 flight cancellations from Air Berlin, my husband, Herzel Aboody, finally arrived in Krakow on Friday evening, after 9 hours on the bus from Berlin. He walked into the Museum just in time to video the concert. In fact, he filmed all the concerts on his iPhone and they are now posted on YouTube.
We then traveled to Zakopane for some hiking and from there to Kielce where we met Rabbi Beliak and Menachem for the commemoration of the Kielce Pogrom that took place in 1946, a year after WWII had ended. This pogrom became a symbol of Polish post-war anti-semitism. For 35 years, under communism in Poland, the pogrom was a forbidden subject, but it was never forgotten. Bogdan Bialek, a Catholic Pole, managed to persuade the people of Kielce to confront a painful piece of their hidden history and his film “Bogdan’s Journey” is a story about contemporary Poland and its Jewish past. I sang both Holocaust and liturgical songs on the steps in front of the Synagogue, which now serves as a warehouse.
We then traveled to Warsaw where I was immersed in the Jewish community for Shabbat. Rivka and I sang for the Friday night and Shabbat morning services and I introduced a few new melodies. I was vey impressed with the knowledge and repertoire of the Shatzim and the fact that everyone in the community was participating and knew all the prayers and music. It was a very warm community.
After a delicious lunch I led a community workshop of liturgical & Israeli songs from the Siddur and then a two-hour workshop with the Shatzim. I gave out a packet of sheet music consisting of new liturgical music and later sent them all the recordings and hope that they continue to use some of the new melodies.
I really enjoyed getting to speak with a few of the different members of the community and was surprised to see so many young people involved at Beit Warszawa, either because they have ancestral roots or maybe just because they found a warm and embracing community there. The fact that they always have a dinner and Shabbat lunch is very welcoming to new people. I was so impressed with the Shatzim’s knowledge and commitment to Judaism. We take it for granted growing up in a huge Jewish community in Los Angeles. However, in Poland, it’s really a big commitment to be Jewish.
The weekend culminated with Havdalah at Beit Centrum, which was really wonderful. I just opened the Siddur so everyone would have the Polish transliteration of the songs and after singing for a half hour, it turned into an impromptu folk dancing party, which was a lot of fun. Thank you to Dominika for leading the folk dancing. This flowed naturally into a beautiful Havdalah led by Avigail and her daughters, using a melody that I’ve never heard before. I understood that they found the melodies on YouTube.
On Sunday morning after breakfast at the JCC, I led singing for a few families and that evening was our 2nd Yiddish Concert at the beautiful PROM KULTURY Theatre in Warsaw. Over 150 attended and extra chairs were added outside the theatre doors to accommodate the overflow. We had a request at the end to sing “Hava Nagila”, which ended our show with impromptu dancing and very good vibes from our largely non-Jewish audience.
Following that Shabbat weekend, Menachem and I performed two more concerts. Kasia organized the next concert in a funky artist’s studio in Gdansk near the very impressive World War II Museum and then we drove down to Lublin to perform on the Culture Bridge. During the sound check there were lots of cameras clicking away, taking pictures of Menachem. It seems that Menachem and his band, the Klezmaholics, are very popular in Lublin. When I sang the Yiddish song “Friling” (Springtime) couples began to dance since the music is set to a Tango melody. Herzel took videos of all the performances and really captured wonderful pictures of the audience clapping and dancing during the shows. It was truly a pleasure to sing with such fabulous musicians.
It was a long drive from Lublin to Zielono Gora, near the German border, where I had my last concert and workshop. During the afternoon I sang Yiddish favorites for the small workshop in the Artist Gallery and that evening, on the pedestrian promenade outside the Artist Gallery, chairs were set up for my solo concert. I sang a mixture of Hebrew and Yiddish songs culminating with Od Yavo Shalom, which I taught the audience.
Coming to Poland at this stage of my career was unexpected and very exciting. I’m very grateful to Dominika for taking care of all the logistics (lodging, train, buses, workshops) and so glad that Dominika and Artur came to California for a visit in August. Thank you to Menachem for organizing and rehearsing the two bands and a huge THANK YOU to Rabbi Haim Beliak and Friends of Jewish Renewal for bringing me to Poland and giving me this incredible experience of witnessing the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland.